Author: Theo Semper - MNI Media | Date: 06 March 2018
Welcome to yet another presentation of “From The Speaker’s Chair”. A collaboration between the Office of the Legislature on Montserrat,
and MNI Media.
Listen to full audio recording below or follow via the published text also:
I appreciate the opportunity to join the conversation on Government, Governance and the Legislative Assembly on Montserrat. My name is Theo Semper. I’m a writer and associate editor at MNI Media. I’ve been tasked with the challenge to talk about the Opposition, specifically the role of the opposition within the Legislature.
On Montserrat, although the role of the opposition is limited within the Assembly, it is not insignificant. In fact, it is an important enough role that the drafters of the 2010 Montserrat Constitution Order saw it fit to ensure that the opposition was not to be excluded from being an active participant in legislative affairs. (The role of the Opposition is not limited. The issue is that the Government majority and the small size of the Montserrat Legislative Assembly (MLA) combine to reduce opportunities for the Opposition to function as it should, that is to say, as an effective scrutineer of Government policy and check on public spending.
The opposition commonly refers to a political grouping within a legislature represented by all those parties that do not constitute the government. The winning party, having gained a majority of seats in a parliamentary election gets to form the government. The remainder/others become the opposition. The leader of the largest minority party usually, by default, maintains the role of Leader of the Opposition. That depends, of course, on constitutional considerations. We’ll discuss that a bit more later.
The Opposition's main role is to question the government of the day and hold them accountable to the public. The Opposition is generally considered a “government in waiting, and is primarily responsible for challenging the policies of the government and producing different policies where appropriate. Also the Opposition if it so chooses can find areas of synergy where they can choose to support the government of the day on an initiative they are seeking to advance that will benefit the country. But that, as stated, is a matter of choice of the Opposition. It is not something they have to do.
I will start by offering a brief discussion on the role of the “Opposition party” in general, including a little bit of history and origins in the parliamentary form of government, and how it fits into government as a whole. The term “Party” does not hold any formal significance for the Parliament, whether Opposition or Government, really. The Opposition is made up of members of whichever political parties did not secure enough votes to form the government. It is, formally, the Queens Loyal Opposition – and is, as should the government also be, technically, supra-party.
I will then talk about the constitutional requirements for an Opposition as set forth by section 61 of the Montserrat Constitution Order of 2010.
And finally, I will examine the make-up of the opposition making reference to (significant) recent changes.
The current Leader of the Opposition on Montserrat is Mr. Easton Taylor-Farrell.
As we have established prior, the Opposition's main role is to question the government of the day and hold them accountable to the public; whereby they are responsible for challenging the policies of the government as often as necessary to ensure that the people of Montserrat are not being shortchanged by the Legislators who make up the Government of the day.
In the United Kingdom the Opposition is known formally as Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition, or the Official Opposition, and is led by the Leader of the Opposition. This is usually, as mentioned earlier, the political party with the second-largest number of seats in the House of Commons, as the largest party usually forms Her Majesty's Government. Since May 2010, the Official Opposition in the UK has been the Labour Party, currently led by Jeremy Corbyn.
The title, Her Majesty's Most Loyal Opposition, was coined in 1826 prior to the advent of the modern two-party system, when Parliament consisted more of interests, relationships and factions rather than the highly coherent political parties of today. The phrase was originally coined in jest; in attacking Foreign Secretary, George Canning, in the House of Commons, John Hobhouse said jokingly, "It is said to be hard on His Majesty's Ministers to raise objections of this character but it is more hard on His Majesty's Opposition to compel them to take this course"
The phrase, “His Majesty’s Opposition,” was widely welcomed and has been in use ever since, officially recognized as the official term for the opposition party in the British Parliament.
Now, how does his relate to Montserrat and the Legislative Assembly?
Montserrat’s parliamentary government is modeled after the United Kingdom’s system so you can expect similarities. In fact, what you have is a system that parallels the British system. The party with the majority of the votes forms the government. The leader of the party with the second most votes historically gets to lead the Opposition. And that’s how it has historically worked in Montserrat. Of course, matters of the legislature are governed by the Constitution Order of 2010; the supreme law of the land.
The Appointment of the Leader of the Opposition is addressed in section 61 of the constitution, where it states that there shall be a leader of the opposition. Subsection 61.2 states that “The Governor shall appoint as Leader of the Opposition the member of the Legislative Assembly who in the judgement of the Governor is best able to command the support of the members of the Assembly in opposition to the Government.”
So even though the leader of the party receiving the second most votes has historically been appointed as Leader of the Opposition, it is not a constitutional requirement, and in theory, gives the Governor full discretion over such an appointment. (In practice, the Governor does not exercise full or any discretion over the appointment of either the Leader of Government Business or the Leader of the Opposition; the Governor is always guided by, that is, the Governor always accepts the appointments as brought for signature. The Governor merely oversees the swearing-in of members into those offices.
The exception would only be, perhaps, if the Governor/the British Government/Queen were imposing direct rule and even in that case they would not be guided; they would make their independent determination.
The Leader of the Opposition on Montserrat must be a member of the Legislative Assembly and must not be appointed as a Minister of government. Should any or either of these conditions change, the post of Leader of the Opposition shall become vacant and another appointment will have to be made.
The Montserrat Constitution 2010 provides for the formation of at least two Standing Committees in the Legislature, one of these being the Public Accounts Committee. It stipulates that at least one of these committees shall be presided over by a member of the Assembly in opposition to the Government (if there is any such member). That member does not necessarily have to be the Leader of the Opposition. It has been the practice in the MLA that the Leader of the Opposition is the Head of the PAC, and since each Standing Committee has power to summon any Minister, or any public officer of a department of government for which a Minister is responsible, to appear before it, this affords the leader of the Opposition significant powers with the committee over which he/she presides.
The role of the Public Accounts Committee is very significant within the Legislative composition and their responsibilities on Montserrat. Thus who Heads this committee also becomes a key figure within the Assembly.
The Montserrat Legislative Assemble Standing Orders 2014 speaks to the Duties of the Public Accounts Committee where is states that the Public Accounts Committee shall:
a) monitor the public accounts in accordance with the section 63(1) of the Constitution.
b) Examine and report to the Assembly on a statement of expenditure in excess referred to it under section 94 of the Constitution; and
c) Perform any other function conferred on it under the Constitution
Thus the Public Accounts Committee, we can see from the Standing Orders, is another measure of accountability to guard the publics purse to ensure that the government of the day do not do as they please with the country’s finances without any checks and balances. It would therefore be worthwhile to have an Opposition that is robust and diligent in keeping a firm eye on the activities of the Government and how monies are allocated and spent accordingly.
The Montserrat Constitution Order 2010 also requires that the Leader of the Opposition be a member of the National Advisory Council (except at any time the Governor is unable to appoint a person as Leader of the Opposition.) In such a case, the National Advisory Council shall be deemed validly constituted in the absence of the Leader of the Opposition.
Some significant events in the recent past have changed the landscape of the Government of Montserrat and the make-up of the Opposition.
The resignation of former Premier and then Leader of the Opposition, Reuben T Meade from parliament left an open seat in the Assembly requiring a special election to fill that seat. What also took place in terms of changes was that Mr Rueben T Meade’s resignation saw the appointment of a new Leader of the Opposition in Mr. Easton Taylor-Farrell. In addition the by-election that was held to fill the Parliamentary vacancy left byMr Rueben T Meade led to the election of Dr. Samuel Joseph as a member of The Montserrat Legislative Assembly within the MCAP party, sitting on the Opposition side.
Another key development in the composition of the Opposition on Montserrat took place with the resignation of Dr. Ingrid Buffonge from the ruling People’s Democratic Movement. Her move rearranged the landscape of the Legislature, adding to the number of members in the Opposition, as Hon Buffonge crossed the floor as it is commonly referred to in Parliamentary language, i.e. she joined The Opposition.
Her joining the Opposition however, does not mean she automatically became a member of the MCAP Party who commands the most Opposition seats. She simply now sits on the Opposition side of the aisle as a matter of the choice she made, but she still continues to represent the people of Montserrat who elected her, however, just in a different capacity.
Relieving Ministers of their Ministerial duties is nothing new and while it is true that such a member may choose to cross the floor and become part of the Opposition, it is also true that that Member may simply choose to remain on the Government side as a back bencher. Thus we say in 2017 that Honourable Claude Hogan was removed from the position of Minister of Agriculture on Montserrat, but chose to remain on the Government side.
A person elected to the MLA on any party ticket, does not cross the aisle unless that person has also relinquished party membership. A change in office and a change in party membership are altogether separate and distinct as far as the Parliament is concerned. Those are party matters not Parliament’s concerns.
The Opposition’s role within the Legislative Assembly on Montserrat affords for more opportunities whenever the Assembly convenes for Opposition Members to challenge the policies of the government of the day, and for perhaps guiding or prodding them towards producing different policies where appropriate.
That concludes this week edition of From The Speaker’s Chair where we looked at the Role of the Opposition within the Legislative Assembly on Montserrat. I do hope you found the information shared useful and informative.
Next week we return to look at the topic “Bills in the Legislative Assembly & The Role of Select Committees”.
I am Theo Semper. From the Speaker’s Chair is brought to you by the Office of the Montserrat Legislative Assembly in collaboration with MNI Media.